Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), praising the work of a Washington lawyers' group on behalf of civil rights, said yesterday that Republicans are just as concerned as Democrats about civil rights and justice and that the two parties must work together for continued progress in these areas.
"It is a deeply moral issue that transcends party lines," Dole said in a luncheon address at a program marking the 15th anniversary of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
About 70 area law firms, whose attorneys have provided pro bono legal services through the committee to victims of discrimination and poverty, were honored yesterday for their work with the committee. The all-day program included panel discussions at the Georgetown University Law Center, a review of the committee's record, and the luncheon, held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
"You've made great progress and provided great service," Dole told the gathering. He lauded the committee's efforts to enforce civil rights legislation, saying enforcement was the key to a successful program to combat discrimination.
The Washington Lawyers' Committee was established in 1968 after the racial disturbances in the District and other cities after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A national Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law was started in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy, who called on prominent lawyers in the North to take on civil rights cases that attorneys in some southern communities were refusing to handle.
Since then, more than 1,000 attorneys representing nearly 100 area law firms have donated their legal services on a wide range of civil rights and poverty issues, including fair housing, equal employment, criminal justice reform, public education, and migrant and immigration rights cases.
In reviewing the committee's accomplishments, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who formerly headed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said attorneys also are needed to help educate "a confused public" about civil rights concerns, particularly affirmative action programs.
"Affirmative action is not a gratuity . . . but a legal remedy established by the courts after a preponderance of evidence" of discrimination, said Norton, who also addressed the luncheon. "We need to find a way to better explain these remedies."
The former EEOC chief attacked what she called the "backward leadership" of the Reagan administration on civil rights. And she joked that when it looked as if Dole might not make it to the luncheon she was afraid she might be called on to defend the administration's civil rights record. "I'd rather defend Senator Dole's record," she said.
Norton said affirmative action remedies "are finally bearing fruit." She predicted that the effects of discrimination could be substantially ended by the end of the century but only if the enforcement of affirmative action remedies are continued.
"It need not take nearly as long to undo discrimination as it did to structure it," she said.
The committee has released reports on its separate areas of civil rights concerns, concluding that individual lawsuits and class actions have accomplished much over 15 years. But future work is essential, the reports said, to monitor compliance with current laws, overcome administrative delays and seek larger monetary damages for violations.